Clearing minds and filling bellies along the melodic Venus Line
Summer hasn’t been easy on us this year. Work was busy, and weekends were marked by bad weather. We initially planned to take a month off to do a big “Tour de Japon”, but I was engaged in organization of a large event, and consequently, we didn’t have summer vacation. My event took place last week and it adhered to Kazuto’s stressful days at work. We barely saw each other during that time, and it’s accurate to say that we practically didn’t talk to each other. We left the home early and returned late in the night, and our only interaction was avoiding the "motorcycle won't start" meme script:
You’d tell me if something was wrong, right? I'm too exhausted to interpret your silence…
All good. Super tired. Sleep!
The week passed like this, with another bad weather forecast weekend approaching. Then on Friday night, as I arrived to yet another post-event party, I ordered my glass of water and announced an early departure home. It’s crunch time, and telepathically (以心伝心) I knew Kazuto is with me on this one! We both needed a switch - and we were ready to go to the most meditative place in Japan to get it:
The Venus Line!
The Venus line is about a 90km route through the mountain roads around the Nagano Prefecture in Japan, connecting visiting spots around the popular ski area. It is known as “the best touring road in Japan”, and aside of that, we didn’t know anything about it. We wanted its scenery to surprise us, therefore we just pinned the location to our navigation, and called the most flexible, convenient and cheapest guest house we could find close to Chino, Jill Shirakabako. The hostel was fine with our after-midnight check-in, and confirmed there’s a place to safely park our bikes. All we needed!
We left Tokyo around 9PM, taking the local road (no highway) through Adachi-ku in Tokyo, Saitama and Gunma prefectures, before reaching Nagano. We did a brief halfway stop during our 220 km ride, Kazuto getting his Monster, while I reincarnated with coffee. When it comes to refreshment breaks, Kazuto is a typical Japanese racer, while I never shook my Balkan survival habits.
Riding the Venus line is seasonal
We approached the Matsumoto Northern Alps Area in the night, and as we rode towards the 2000m high Utsukushigahara plateau, we felt the change, and saw nothing. The fog was so thick that we felt happy catching up with a car in front of us and following its taillights that guided the way. Through transceiver, I heard Kazuto open his helmet visor, and I followed his action. We both laughed at the same time, as drops of condensation dripped on our face, while the fog served as a full face moisturizer. Temperature dropped below 15 degrees Celsius (from daytime 30+), and we started freezing. It was incredible that we wore the same Dainese leather gear in cold winter, and only the change of the inner wear made the ride warm enough! The ride to the Jill Shirakabako Hostel was magnificent. We could only see few meters of windy road in front of us, and taking its curves slowly filled us with joy. There was no need to ask "are we there yet?" - we were definitely already riding the Venus Line. The smell of pine trees and the cold made us feel festive - it felt like Christmas. This famous ski area will be covered in thick layer of snow soon, therefore we caught one of the last weekends to ride the Utsukushigahara plateau this year.
Thin walls of the convenient cheap flexible hostel placed at an ideal lake-side spot
Arriving to Shirakabako Jill Hostel, we parked the bikes in total
darkness and woke up the guest house manager. He checked us into a
modest, but nice traditional Japanese private room upstairs, and guided
us to the dining area, where we enjoyed "otsukare" beers and
snacks after a revitalizing hot shower. We probably woke up the whole
guesthouse getting settled into our room at 4am, and the large jazz
musicians group staying at the hostel returned the favor 2 hours later, getting ready for early morning kayaking.
Thin walls of the building don't absorb any sound, which is the only
downside of the hostel, but this was compensated by a very flexible extended checkout time and the fact that a modest Japanese breakfast (rice, natto and miso soup) waited for us far beyond the brunch time.
Starting the Venus tour from Shirakabako lake
The morning revealed where we actually left our babies the previous night: They were resting calmly at the Shirakabako lakeside, an artificial lake built on the plateau between Mt. Kuruma-yama and Mt. Tateshina-yama. As we sat on our bikes, a group of some 50 riders passed by, some of them waving, others not bothering about anything but their own wheels on the road. Everyone drove slowly and enjoyed the scenery.
The Venus Line that runs east-west in central Nagano Prefecture was opened up as a free road in 2002. It extends from the area surrounding Chino Station for 76km up to the Utsukushigahara Highlands, and with an average altitude of 1400m, reaching the maximum altitude of 1920m. It travels entirely through mountain areas and twists and turns the entire time, allowing riders to lean in every few seconds.
Venus Line connects three highland areas in central Nagano: Utsukushigahara, Tateshina and Kirigamine-kogen, taking riders through wooded groves, mountainsides and highland plains covered in high grass and colorful flowers this time of the year.
This route is very popular with drivers and bikers on the weekends, and in contrast to Okutama, people here enjoyed sights at much lower speed and higher street interaction.
Melody road - grooves that groove even inside the helmet!
Japan is famous for its "Melody roads". Ever since Shizuo Shinoda accidentally scraped some markings into a road with a bulldozer and drove over them, realizing that tunes depend on the depth and spacing of the grooves, there has been a lot of effort spent on perfecting the methods for making the roads "sing". First "Melody Road" was built in Hokkaido, and we knew that there are quite many "singing" roads now, creating an audible melody inside a car when driven over with a constant speed of 40 km/h. A sign announcing a Melody Road on Venus Line came as a surprise, which amplified when we actually heard some kind of tune inside our helmets. Both of us wondered whether it's just the subliminal effect of seeing the signboard, but checking the GoPro footage I took from my Ninja, we could hear the sound of it even there (I will add the video to this blog shortly). We tried to adjust the speed to 40km/h, but apparently got a slightly upbeat version of the Scarborough Fair song.
The roads work by creating sequences of variable width groove intervals to create specific low and high frequency vibrations. In other words, it's pure magic:
Melodic rides and date silence. None awkward whatsoever.
Every now and then we passed by a Ski resort or a mountain hut with large parking areas and many sunbathing bikers. Despite chilly mountainous area, it got hot under the sun, and while our gear enjoyed a (still very silent) date at the roadside cafe, we took the opportunity to strike a pose a snap a picture without capturing the wonderful panorama. You can't get it all... At least not with an iPhone.
Stopped to enjoy the view, ended up indulging in seasonal delicacies
I never refused an offered ice cream, but accepting it this time was a bit different. After we devoured the local "soft ice" made from milk cream by local cows, we indulged in oyaki, dumplings made from a fermented buckwheat dough wrapped around a stuffing (in this case local wild veggies). On the way back to the bikes we spotted matsutake, exclusive (and expensive) mushrooms whose price per kilo reaches up to US$1,000. We only knew these mushrooms from the popular retro slapstick-comedy show The Drifters. We went for the next best (and way cheaper) thing, ordering soba noodles with other local mushrooms, which truly tasted like heaven. And when in milk heaven, we wrapped our "just a minute to check out the view" stop with a proper cafe latte at 1400m. If we stayed at Kirinoeki parking area a bit longer, I'd get my Venus body in no time!
The Jōmon kind of Venus body
The Jōmon Venus (that contributed the name to this scenic route) is a dogū, a humanoid clay female figurine from the Middle Jōmon period (3,000–2,000 BC), discovered in this area. In 1995, this was the first Jōmon-period artifact to be so designated as a National Treasure. Many other Jōmon were excavated around this area and can be seen at the Togariishi Museum of Jōmon Archaeology in Chino. We have not visited the museum at this occasion, but hope to do so shortly.
Another spot we left for the future:
We didn't have much time, and only checked a third of the Venus line on this occasion. It was a short and sweet preview of the route, pinched between our grueling work schedules. Next time, we plan to ride along the open-air exhibition hall displaying sculptures, leading to the 360-degree panoramic view of the surrounding mountains, known as the Utsukushi-ga-hara Kogen Art Museum. The official photos on the Museum website look stunning, but we're sure the reality is even better, and hope to have time for a peaceful art absorption before the snowfall.
Last but not least, a pin on the map. Go here: